Big demographic tides are sweeping the world: how should aid organizations respond?

May 24, 2019

     By Duncan Green     

Recently I spent half day BS’ing (breeze-shooting, obviously) about future trends and challenges for international

organizations like Oxfam. Confession: we’re supposed to hate these, but often they’re really fun.

A table on demographic shifts got me particularly excited. Great human tides are sloshing around the globe, populations are moving geographically, and their age make-up is changing rapidly. All that has big implications for aid organizations. Here are just a few of the changes under way:

Ageing: rapid transitions in much of the world, with booming populations of older people, often before a welfare state is properly in place to look after them.

Youth bulge: at the same time, a surge of younger people in much of Africa and parts of Asia, creating a pressing need for jobs and better life prospects

Migration: cross border migration is both more necessary (who’ll look after the old people?) and more unpopular (Brexit, Trump). Falling transport costs and greater connectivity will keep driving the flow, along with inequality, climate change, scarcity (of food, water) and conflict.

Urbanization: the boom in both mega- and medium sized cities creates both opportunities (people get organized in cities, build broader networks of relationships, get better access to education) and threats (insecurity, violence, drugs). Here’s a taster

Sub-Saharan Africa: Urbanization from IMB on Vimeo.

Nothing new about any of these, of course – Oxfam has been threatening to ‘go urban’ in its strategic plans since the late 1980s! But the conversation then turned to the ‘so whats’. How should INGOs address these big tides?

I think there’s an underlying psychological challenge here. Staying relevant in a world of constant change means embracing the new, but there’s a deep vein of nostalgia and peasant romanticism in the aid sector that is actually rather conservative. We want to ‘protect’ people from all those nasty modern things like cities and migration; we stress the costs (brain drain) over the gains (remittances and ‘brain gain’ when migrants return home). We’re far more likely to support an ageing population of farmers as their kids head for the cities, than to help those kids migrate with decency.

So what might embracing change look like?

Identify and support the agency of new constituencies: demographic change throws up new poles of power

– the organized voice of older people that has captured large chunks of UK politics; urban social movements; Diasporas from different countries that wield power through connections and remittances. INGOs should at the very least be aware of them, but much better to link up with them for progressive ends.

Accompaniment: instead of wasting time deciding whether you are ‘for’ or ‘against’ something like rural-urban migration, understand how people migrate and then see if you can help them with the bad bits. In the 19th Century, US volunteers met the migrants off the ships in New York, and tried to help them in those vulnerable first days and hours. Modern-day versions help with European migrants in Calais and elsewhere, but the big aid organizations stay well clear.

Bearing witness: I’m a big fan of what French-speakers call temoignage – testimony or bearing witness. Saying what we see on the ground is a key part of Oxfam’s advocacy and legitimacy, but we don’t always do it very well. If we listened and observed more attentively, we would spot new as well as old threats and opportunities, and gain a deeper understanding of how live is changing at the sharp end.

Bearing witness is important not just to identify the changes, but to detect any negative impacts from the way powerful actors respond to those changes. One of the issues that worries me is geoengineering. It is highly likely that planetary meddling – reflecting the sun’s rays, or dumping iron filings in the sea to absorb carbon dioxide – will at some point become a part of the response to the climate crisis. And given the nature of power and politics, it is also likely that any negative impacts will affect poor rather than rich people – the iron filings won’t be dumped off the coast of Kent or New York, but in Asia or Africa.

Malleable institutions and new players: one of the features of rapid change is that it creates new forms of organization and a window when these new institutions and policies are less entrenched and so easier to influence, before they acquire fixed positions and alliances. Fast footwork – research, advocacy, networking – can take advantage of these brief periods to make sure some good stuff happens.

Above and below the nation state: Everyone understands the importance of working globally on issues like climate change, but one of the features of urbanization is the rapid ascent of cities and city authorities as political players. Cities should probably be a much more prominent target of our influencing, but our experience is often much stronger at national, and we are slow to change.

What have I missed?

May 24, 2019
Duncan Green